It was an extraordinary scene. There was President Barack Obama, feting some of the nation’s most celebrated people in the White House – legendary names, sports heroes and entertainers whose work is known around the world: Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen, Diana Ross, Bill and Melinda Gates.
And there was Eduardo Padron, who came to the United States from Cuba as a boy, dedicated his life to making education available to anyone who wanted it and built Miami Dade College into the largest public university in the United States.
If ever Padron needed any validation of his life’s work, Tuesday was it, honored by the world’s most powerful man with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, marking him as one of the nation’s most celebrated individuals.
“Eduardo made his choice to create more stories just like his,” Obama said, referring to Padron’s immigrant story. “Dr. Padron has built a dream factory for one of the nation’s most diverse student bodies.”
Then Obama hung the medal around Padron’s neck in the ornate East Room of the White House, with its long gold-embroidered curtains, a giant chandelier and oil portraits of former first ladies.
A military aide read from the official citation as Obama placed the ribbon with medal pendant around Padron’s neck. Padron wore a black suit, white shirt and pink tie.
“His thoughtful leadership and commitment to education have transformed Miami Dade College into one of the premier institutions of higher learning in the world,” the citation said.
Padron, now 72, immigrated to the country as a teenager in 1959 as part of Operation Pedro Pan, which allowed Cuban parents to send their children to the United States alone.
Padron earned a bachelor’s degree from MDC, earned master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Florida, became an economist, then returned to MDC.
Eduardo made his choice to create more stories just like his. Dr. Padron has built a dream factory for one of nation's most diverse student bodies.
President Barack Obama
The Cuban-American began to receive national acclaim after becoming president of MDC in 1995 and initiating ambitious reforms. Four years later, Time magazine chose him as one of the country’s 10 best college presidents.
Among other recipients were singers Springsteen and Ross, basketball legends Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, actors Hanks, Robert Redford, and Robert De Niro, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, who’ve given away billions of their fortune.
There was Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry, “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels and TV talk show host Ellen DeGeneris.
“He was sprung from a cage out on Highway 9, a quiet kid from Jersey,” Obama said of Springsteen, quoting from his mega-hit “Born to Run.”
“For decades, Bruce Springsteen has brought us all along on a journey consumed with the bargains between ambition and injustice, between pleasure and pain,” Obama said.
Springsteen was unusually clean-cut for the ceremony with closely cropped hair, a black suit and a white shirt. Yells of “Bruce! Bruce!” came from the audience as Obama gave him the medal.
The ceremony was filled with laughter as Obama, a huge sports fan and music aficionado, traded jokes with recipients and mugged with them.
“I am the president, he’s the Boss,” he said of Springsteen.
21 The number of luminaries from education, architecture, computer science, music, entertainment and culture who received the Presidential Medal of Honor.
Ross, lead singer of The Supremes, mugged with Obama, impishly pulling the right shoulder of her black gown down over her arm. Obama, a lover of Motown music, put his arm around Ross and pulled her close.
After reading out the accomplishments of each recipient, Obama draped the medals around their necks, calling them to the podium one by one.
“This is a really good class,” he said as the audience rose to deliver a standing ovation. “Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to give it up for the recipients of the 2016 Medal of Freedom. It is a good group!”
Abdul Jabbar towered over the president when he was called to the front. Obama feigned making a left hook shot, prompting the great center to imitate his signature shot.
Jordan, the most famous athlete from Obama’s hometown of Chicago, received the loudest applause, while Los Angeles Dodgers radio announcer Vin Scully got the most sustained ovation. Gates, who was honored along with his wife Melinda for their foundation’s work, also prompted a boisterous response.
The aide who read off the citations began Scully’s passage with, “Next up,” the announcer’s trademark way of announcing the next batter due at the plate.
As Obama draped a medal around Jordan’s neck, a military attache read from the official citation: “Michael Jordan has a name that’s become synonymous for excellence. He is a global superstar whose influence transcended basketball.”
Joining Obama and the recipients for the ceremony were First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, United States Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and other dignitaries.
Eduardo Padron immigrated in 1959 as a teenager as part of Operation Pedro Pan, which allowed Cuban parents to send their children to the United States alone.
The citation for Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, honored her for “cutting a wound into the earth to create a sacred place of healing in our nation’s capital.”
Obama appeared be become slightly emotional at times as he presided over the last of the annual White House awards ceremonies.
“Just on a personal note, part of the reason that these events are so special to me is because everybody on this stage has touched me in a very powerful way — in ways that they probably couldn’t imagine,” the president said.
“These are folks who have helped make me who I am and think about my presidency,” he said. “What also makes this special is this is America. It’s useful when you think about this incredible collection of people to realize that this is what makes us the greatest nation on earth.”
As the applause reached a crescendo, Obama added: “Not because of our differences, but because in our differences, we find something common to share. And what a glorious thing that is, what a great gift that is, to America.”
Lingering among the celebrities who appeared to inspire awe in him, Obama finally said he had to leave.
“Michelle and I have to get back to work, unfortunately,” he said before heading back to the Oval Office.